AUBURN, Ala. — When Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant report back for Auburn’s preseason camp, they’ll pick up where they left off in the spring, knotted atop the running back depth chart.
Peyton Barber isn’t far behind, as he used the spring to begin proving himself worthy of carries after redshirting last season. But two more players will join the fray this fall: The true freshmen duo of Racean Thomas and Kamryn Pettway. The latter is a consensus three-star prospect from Prattville, while the former is so talented that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn called him “a key” member of the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class.
And thanks to new NCAA rules that take effect this summer, Tim Horton believes both could push for playing time from Day 1.
“We’ll have the opportunity of two hours a week to ‘chalk talk’ with them. We can start classroom activities and meet with them and watch video with them and start teaching them the offense,” said Horton, Auburn’s running backs coach. “And for those two guys — and really all the incoming newcomers — that’s going to be a great rule that really benefits us and I think will give some guys a quicker opportunity to play.”
Prior to this year, assistants were allowed almost no contact with players during the summer. Aside from making sure players were staying on top of their academics and going to class, coaches’ hands were tied, Horton said. That meant they had to put all their faith in strength and conditioning coaches, the only part of the staff permitted to have in-person contact with players.
Now, that’s changed.
Coaches can supervise their players up to eight hours every week, with film review taking up two of those hours.
Horton couldn’t be more excited.
“To have a set time each week that we’re going to meet and we’re going to teach you the offense, that’s big,” he said. “But Georgia will do it and LSU and Alabama will do it. All of our competition will do it. But I think it will give the newcomers a little bit of a push or an edge that they didn’t have in the past.”
Not that either of the incoming freshmen needs any extra help; their ability isn’t in question. Pettway ran 1,402 yards and 17 touchdowns last year on just 169 carries. Thomas was even better, as he tallied 2,211 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on his way to being named Alabama’s Mr. Football.
The way offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee sees it, it wouldn’t be any surprise for both to work their way into the rotation immediately.
But he cautioned that it’s always best to take things on a case-by-case basis.
“We've had it both ways. We've had guys like Peyton Barber who either because we had guys in front of him or he just needed a redshirt year (to sit out and learn the offense),” Lashlee said. “ And then we've had other guys in the past that as a true freshman were ready, and we kind of eased them into it and sometimes earlier in the year they got more, or as the year went on they got more or their workload increased. We'll have to see how that goes when those two get here and see how they respond.”
Above all else, Lashlee assured that class standing is irrelevant.
“We're going to play the best player at every position,” he said. “I don't care if you're a senior, I don't care if you're a true freshman. So (Thomas and Pettway) are going to get opportunities.”